Passion is all about being vibrant and eager to put forth the effort. Are you hungry to compete and excel, and enthusiastic about the opportunity to do so? Will you be passionate when you don't feel like it?
On November 25, 2008, two days before Thanksgiving, Davidson College hosted Loyola of Maryland in the loser's bracket of the newly expanded NIT Season Tip-Off. It was the second game of a doubleheader at Belk Arena, following an unmemorable Florida Atlantic-James Madison contest that may or may not have actually happened. But people remember the other tilt to this day, even those who weren't there. That was the game when Stephen Curry was held scoreless.
Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos ordered two of his players to double-team the nation's leading scorer, at all times. Not just when he had the ball, but at all times
. And as the game went on, when it became clear that Patsos was serious about this and that he wouldn't alter his game plan, Curry calmly camped out in the far corner with his two new green-clad friends. As the home crowd booed, the rest of the Wildcats played 4-on-3 against the Greyhounds, and won 78-48.
"We could have done box-and-one, triangle-and-two like everyone else," he said. "But he's beaten all those. We were trying to win the game. But the next morning, everybody was talking about me like I was Lucifer or something."
"Coach Jimmy" was one of the first basketball coaches who befriended me after I transitioned from blogger to Real Actual Journalist in 2005. After a Loyola guarantee game at Providence's Dunkin' Donuts Center, he was the first coach to show me an evening I could never write about. Some coaches would stay in their hotel room and watch tape, but not this guy. Coach Jimmy was out there
in the street.
He's every stranger's friend. When he talks to you, he squares up toe-to-toe with his big 6-foot-3 frame, gives you a big gregarious handshake and a smile as wide as the three-point arc, and starts talking a mile a minute. It's probably why he was such a great recruiter at the higher levels, back when he was a National Championship top assistant under Gary Williams at Maryland. When Coach Jimmy is on you, you can't see around him.
He loves this game, and loves to make people laugh about it. Whenever I'd show up to see his team play back then, he would always go to great lengths to embarrass me during the postgame press conferences. As student newspaper reporters and the Baltimore Sun
stringer set up their recorders, he'd very studiously walk into the room, sit down, adjust his jacket, lean in and deadpan, "We rebounded well, we ran our plays well, but I'm going to give this game ball to Kyle Whelliston. The guys really wanted to play well because they knew he was here tonight. Any questions?"
I think the reason why Coach Jimmy and I initially hit it off was the great social leveler of our shared era: the Grateful Dead. I was second-generation, and followed the band around the Midwest back in the early 1990s. He went to more shows than he had coaching victories. The week after the Davidson incident, I burned a CD of the 1990 Halloween show at London's Wembley Arena (with that killer opening Help>Slip>Franklin's) and sent it to him, all in an effort to cheer him up. He needed it. "The Curry kid outsmarted me," he told me later. "He rope-a-doped me like Muhammad Ali. I thought he would try to take a few shots. After the game, he came up to me, calmly shook my hand, and wished me good luck for the rest of the season. I thought he was going to tell me to go fuck myself. But he didn't."
That was a rough week for Coach Jimmy. Seven days earlier, during a game against Cornell at the NIT Season Tip-Off pod in Boston, he was given a technical foul by referee John Gaffney. Patsos claims to this day that Gaffney threatened a second tech on the next uttered word, so he walked into the stands and took a seat next to his athletic director. "It was a dumb thing to do," he admitted. "But if I get ejected, I embarrass the school. As for Gaffney, I have nothing against him. The director of officials asked if I wanted a review, I said no. I don't want anyone suspended. He had a bad day. We all have bad days. I had a bad day that day too."
Jimmy Patsos is impulsive, strange, erratic, stubborn, unconventional, vulgar, ferocious, and yes, a little bit crazy. OK, a lot crazy. But not the kind that's certifiable or dangerous, like the columnists and "Pardon the Interruption" pundits thought he was after Currygate and T-Gate. He's just passionate about the game of basketball -- that never changes or wavers. He bounces around the sideline so much that he sweats through his shirt and suit, and when the Greyhounds win at home, he jumps into the stands and starts hugging random students. It's a sharp contrast against the guy he replaced. During the 1-27 campaign of 2003-04, Scott Hicks would pace sadly during games, and slump down in his seat during every 15-2 scoring run the other way. The last news people at Loyola had about Hicks: he'd become a watch salesman after he was fired.
Season 1 for The Mid-Majority was 2004-05, and it was Season 1 for Patsos at Loyola too. I went to 100 games, they won six. In Season 2, the year we met, the Greyhounds finished with a winning record: 15-13. Year 3 was high-stakes for both of us, for different reasons. For Coach Jimmy, a breakthrough to the national postseason would be the signal that Loyola had arrived. He would crack open the Baltimore recruiting market, a pool of talent so deep and wide that he might have the Greyhounds in the Dance every year. He could run the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association as long as he wanted, an era that would only end when the ACC job of his liking came along.
He had started with high-scoring guards he signed through secondary recruiting. Loyola, led by high-scoring Providence transfer Gerald Brown, won nine of their first 11 games in the MAAC in 2006-07. But in February came fractures and splits in the season. The shooting went cold, the defense sprung leaks, and the team chemistry turned sour. A northern road trip to Marist and Fairfield ended in a sweep. On February 11, a Sunday afternoon, I came by Reitz Arena for the Greyhounds' home game against those Fairfield Stags. Coach Jimmy's mood before the game was anguished, dark, electrified. The team fell apart and lost by eight points.
And there was something wrong with Brown, who was averaging 22 points, enough so that he sat for most of the second half and was taken to the hospital after the game. Wrong enough that he'd miss most of the rest of the month with complications. In the near-empty arena after the game, I asked Coach Jimmy how bad it was.
"I like you, Kyle, and I know you've come up the hard way," he said. His eyes were wild. "But I have to tell you something." He put a meaty paw on my shoulder. "Some folks look for answers, others look for fights, and some folks are up in treetops looking for their kites. I've been the ripple in still water where there was no pebble tossed. I've been a headlight on a northbound train. I've been run out in the cold rain and snow. Fuck, I've even played in Uncle John's band down by the riverside. I'll get back on my feet someday, Kyle, the good Lord willing if He says I may. But now, I've just got to row, Jimmy, row. Gonna get there?" Then he backed away and shrugged demonstratively. "I don't know."
And then he turned, walked off, and went to the hospital with the rest of the coaching staff to help tend to his player. I stood there, lightning bolt through my skull, my face stolen.
Loyola finished 18-13, 12-6 in the MAAC, and went out to Niagara in the semifinals. Season 4 was it
, and the margin for error was shrinking for Patsos. Brown, the sixth-leading returning scorer in the country, was a senior. Hassan Fofana was a former 6-foot-10 Maryland Terp, and provided plenty of size and rebounding. The Greyhounds were installed as MAAC favorites, and their coach was suddenly brooding and serious. He was going to be Quiet Jimmy that season. No more yelling, no more technicals. He was going to sit in his chair and just coach.
After early losses to Towson and Seton Hall, the funeral for Quiet Jimmy was held just before Thanksgiving. Early struggles begat MAAC success, and Loyola won 11 of 13 league games during one stretch. At the conference tourney in Albany, the Greyhounds clawed past Fairfield for a second straight trip to the semifinals. The opponent would be the home team, Siena.
Loyola had swept Siena in the 2007-08 season series. The Greyhounds rushed out to an early lead, and were up by 14 points in the first half. All they had to do was send the ball into the post for an easy two points. They maintained a double-digit lead for most of the game, and led by seven with six minutes remaining. And then by four at the two-minute mark. Loyola couldn't hit their free throws. With 20 seconds left, 6-7 Saint Josh Duell gave his team the lead for the first time. Siena won the game, 67-65.
If Siena hadn't won, they wouldn't have destroyed Vanderbilt in the NCAA first round. The Saints wouldn't have walked over a Rider team decimated by injuries in the MAAC final, and they wouldn't have been there at the Big Dance. After the game, Patsos was stunned and sullen. He knew
that his program's trajectory line was slashed. Quiet Jimmy returned. "It was a good game," he whispered hoarsely at the press conference. "We played well. Just not good enough down the stretch. We didn't make our free throws." And then a pause. "I just want to apologize to Kyle Whelliston. I know he came a long way to come see us play, and I don't want to think about where he's spending the night, but I'm just sorry we didn't play better for him. Thank you, gentlemen."
Patsos knew my secret. He knew I was just as crazy as he was.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
The lowest moment might have been when I was stranded in Stockton, California for two days until a website donation came along so I could buy gas. Actually, it was probably when I had to shut the site down until I raised enough money to pay for a plane ticket out of Birmingham. Lowest only in terms of bank balance, which was usually down into two digits back then, not some sort of destitution. I didn't have much when I started, just a dead software company, a passion for college basketball, and a hunger to be the best road writer I could be. To save what little money I had, I'd shower at truck stops and sleep in parking lots with the doors locked, with nothing but the car heater and my blood to keep me warm.
Coach Jimmy knew, and he understood. We'd all done it, all of us Deadheads. Back then, when Jerry was alive, we did it so we could make it to the show, so we could listen to the music, hope for a "Dark Star," and be with our friends. Some did it for survival, to be part of the economy of The Lot. People who are on "the bus" would do anything
to stay on the road, to keep the music playing, to stab, stab, stab in the dark until the magic pattern reveals itself.
In the summer of 2008, after the loss to Siena, Patsos became Zen Jimmy. He lost 35 pounds by giving up social adult beverages and Chinese food. The bulge under his chin simply vanished. He took up yoga. He started wearing a bracelet that his girlfriend gave him with four dangling symbols: love, joy, passion and equanimity.
The change brought to mind that of another Baltimore Jimmy: the Irish cop McNulty from The Wire
. This was Season 4 Jimmy, content to sit behind a desk and go home to Beadie Russell every night. But we never change
. Soon after the 2008-09 season began, old Jimmy started to punch through the walls. Patsos didn't invent a serial killer, but when he put two guys on Curry and sat in the stands, the media reacted as if he had.
And then I started hearing the back-channel reports that some of the old patterns were creeping back into his life. A few of the pounds reappeared. It's easy for an armchair psychologist or amateur analyst to say, "Well, it's because he's..."
But single words are roadblocks to understanding. Core motivations are always more complex than an adjective. Why we do what we do doesn't fit into a single word, not even "love." To understand requires going further, to search for the constant element -- that's where the reason and the why
This is Season 7 for Jimmy Patsos too. The last two haven't gone well: 12-20, and then 13-17. The lack of an NCAA breakthrough means that getting recruits hasn't been as easy, and Loyola has settled back into the invisible band of mid-major teams that struggle to break even.
And his seventh trip around the sun at Loyola almost didn't happen. Over in old College Park this summer was the end of a coaching domino-chain. When Dave Dickerson was fired at Tulane of Conference USA after five years, Ed Conroy from The Citadel stepped in. Chuck Driesel, Gary Williams' top assistant at Maryland, went down south to fill that job. And so there was a vacancy at Terrapin Station, and Patsos was close to getting his old job back. This was his escape hatch. But to accept, to return to the ACC as an assistant, would mean that the previous six seasons simply didn't happen. Jimmy Patsos was six years older.
I haven't seen Coach Jimmy for a while. I left him a message this morning, letting him know that I was planning to come down to Reitz Arena to see his team play. Long time, no see.
The last time I ran into him was in January of 2009. He showed me his bracelet. He told me to see "Slumdog Millionaire," a recommendation I followed up on -- the night I got myself fired from my big-media gig. He told me the story of a friend of his who had been caught up in the terrorist attacks at Mumbai, India, several weeks earlier.
"I just talked to him the other day," he told me. "What he did was he shut the windows, turned out all the lights, and hid under his bed. For 30 hours, didn't go out for food or anything. That was his game plan. He stuck with his game plan, and he made it through alright."
I nodded. He nodded. We both understood.
And then it was time to go. As he walked away, he flashed me a peace sign. "Sunshine daydream," he said.
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